Sunday, August 24, 2008

#49 - Petite Anglaise

In all honesty, I don't know what to say about Catherine Sanderson's Petite Anglaise. Written in the chatty, blog-like style the writer developed on her enormously successful blog of the same name, her memoir covers a tumultuous period where Sanderson makes sweeping changes in her life. Having spent the last eight years with her partner, whom she identifies in the book as "Mr. Frog," the British ex-pat now finds her life as a working mom somewhat lacking. While trying to reclaim her identity, she starts her blog, and it opens up a whole new world to her. And when a mysterious man starts leaving comments that cut to her romantic core, Catherine is forced to make some very hard decisions about what she wants out of her life.

The writing was all a little too Eat, Pray, Love for me, and for the most part I found that blog-style writing doesn't always necessarily transfer to a larger book format as well as one would expect. The never-ending descriptions of Paris grow weary after a while (Sanderson never met a view of the Eiffel Tower she didn't love and/or want to describe) and, despite her obvious talents, the whole book felt like it was lacking maybe a bit of an emotional core? I mean, it's not as if Sanderson didn't describe her emotions, but somehow reading Petite Anglaise felt like work. If I was truly engaged (like I was with Kerry Cohen's excellent memoir, Loose Girl), the pages would have flown by.

That said, there's a lot to like about it as well, and I'm so impressed with the story behind the book -- her rags-to-riches blog success, how she made a life for herself and for her delightful daughter (Tadpole) in Paris (a city I adore too and would give my right arm to live in any day), and how she gets swept up in a moment that may have not been the best decision, but takes it all in stride, dusts herself off, and carries on with the same tireless spirit she displays throughout the book.

Chicklit readers will appreciate the passion in the memoir, and I'd suspect the package too, with its pretty brown and pinks, the lovely sillouette on the cover. Maybe it's just me and the fact that I love a little more meat in my memoir, something slightly juicer and far darker than Petite Anglaise can provide. This, of course, is no fault of the author and utterly all my own subjective ideas about the kinds of truth I like uncovered between the pages.

PHOTO IN CONTEXT: The book on my kitchen table in exactly the spot where I finished reading it this morning. What you can't see in the shot are the twenty-odd tomatoes surrounding it.

WHAT'S UP NEXT: Marilynne Robinson's Home, which I started this week too and am already loving.

Weekend Update

We stayed in the city because my RRHB played a festival in Collingwood on Friday night, which meant that after leaving for summer hours, I had a whole band widow afternoon stretched out in front of me. One guess where I ended up: the garden. I did some weeding, picked some beans for dinner and tried to save as many of the tomatoes as humanly possible. We also had two more cucumbers and there are 4 more zucchinis growing.

The cucumber is waning, dying a slow death on the vine, and I'm actually mourning its going. I've eaten those cucumbers all summer as snacks and it's a huge part of how I'm now winning the 18 Pound Challenge. When I saw the final slicer that I think will actually ripen out of the corner of my eye as I was attacking a weed patch near our lone corn plant that will probably not produce any corn, I actually gasped out loud. About a vegetable. So I brought it inside and tenderly sliced it up for dinner alongside the beans that are a mite bit happier now that I pulled the hulking squash out from in front of them (not to worry, our other squash plants are happily growing like mad just on the other side -- they're even starting to flower and bud).

Annnywaay, my Friday band widow afternoon/evening was spent watching some terribly girlie movies (Miss Pettigrew Lives for Day [utterly fetching and truly wonderful] and What Happens in Vegas [meh; of course, meh]) before passing out at about 10 PM and trying to read some of Marilynne Robinson's Home. Two pages, maybe three?

On Saturday I managed to do more gardening (more weeding; more watering) before meeting Tara for lunch before we went to go see Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants 2. Aw, those pants, still so enjoyable in a totally can't-believe-this-cheesy-movie-made-me-cry-more-than-once kind of way. There were some parts that were so ridiculous that we were laughing when we (obviously) shouldn't have been, but that's what those movies are for. The most hilarious part of the film wasn't even on screen. When Kyle MacLachlan showed up as the artsy drama teacher at Carmen's summer stock, a woman in the row behind us exclaimed, "Oh my god!" Heh. Among other annoyances: why on earth would anyone wear white eyelet to a charcoal drawing class? To any art class? The guy from Swingtown does a terrible Greek accent and is forced to say lines like, "we are terrible at not loving each other." Bridget goes to an archaeological dig and kisses the bones, all the while bouncing around and then PLAYING SOCCER next to the dig. As Tara said, "She's a worse archaeologist than Indiana Jones." But we forgive these indiscretions and even the truly awful pants because they did a really good, honest job of those moments that either change friendship forever or let it evolve as their lives evolve. Those were the parts that made me all teary.

Then it was back on my bike and home to see my RRHB for about 10 minutes before he left for his show at the Horseshoe last night. Meredith came down and met me for a drink beforehand, and then it was off for a night of rock as Fembots played with Cuff the Duke (and I'm so sorry but I don't remember the other opening band as I completely missed them!). A truly fun four beer evening complete with a joke, a very tall man bobbing his head, and a couple that made out on the dance floor while pretending to be in grade eight. They were awesome.

Despite my ridiculous hangover, I crawled out of bed at 7 AM this morning and couldn't get back to sleep. As a result, I finished a book, biked down to the farmer's market in Liberty Village, bought some great vegetables, biked home (HOLY CRAP IT WAS HOT AND HARD), and then cleaned out the fridge all before 10:30 AM. We've already come and gone from Kensington Market and now I have the whole afternoon in front of me to work on my Classic Starts and finish up my last Harlequin assignment for this month. That's if I don't collapse on my keyboard as the dregs of whatever energy I do have left piss out top like the rest of an empty keg (does that even make sense?).

Happy Sunday all.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

One Should Not Listen...

...to ridiculously sad songs at work because your mascara will run, people will ask you what's wrong and then look at you funny when you say you're just listening to the radio. Aw, Sufjan Stevens, you sure know how to weep your way into a girl's heart.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Harvest Redux

Today we ate more zucchini from the garden, made into a delicious recipe from Laura Calder's French Food at Home, cooked with the basil that has finally started to grow like crazy. On the weekend, we had the first batch of beans, and I was delighted to see that the purple ones, when cooked, turn green. Plants are so interesting, aren't they?

Tonight, as I mentioned, I picked the basil for dinner and also collected another three cucumbers and broke off another zucchini. I've made piles of really delicious muffins over the last four weeks and learned that the oven at the cottage really sucks (how can it take 2 HOURS for muffins to cook?). I'll make more this weekend and more the weekend after that if we keep getting zucchinis from that one plant.

I have to confess, I really love eating vegetables from our garden. We've used up three tomatoes so far, and even though the plants are a mess (damn you blight, damn you!), I think I'll have enough to make some soup this weekend for lunch next week. Oh, and I brought the one cherry tomato seedling that survived inside to see if it would fare better and surprise, surprise, it's almost doubled in size since I perched it beside our kitchen window.

We had a busy weekend (Sam, Jay and Sadie up at the cottage) and the weather was the nicest it's been since the summer started. I had a swim in the lake on Sunday after working for most the day on my latest Classic Start that lasted for an eternity. We ate great food, kept wonderful company, and I managed to get a pile of work done. With four Harlequin assignments this month (it's a record!), I've had a lot of work-related reading to do, but I managed, at long last, to finish Wally Lamb's exceptional new novel (#49). I started Peter Carey's latest too, and was reminded why I love him and literary fiction so much as the sun warmed my shoulders after I climbed out of the water pruned and happy. And then promptly left the book on the sun deck, which means I won't be able to get back to it until the September long weekend. When I say good-bye to outdoor swimming for another season. I'm not ready for it to end. I'm truly not.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Generation Kill vs. Stop-Loss

Before I start, let us pause for a moment on the fact that I just spent a half-hour making fake blood for work.

Ahem.

The RRHB and I have been watching Generation Kill, the 7-part miniseries by David Simon (the man responsible for The Wire, the best show ever produced for television) about the Iraq war. The series follows a group of highly trained Recon Marines as they follow the chain of command's increasingly stupid decisions and continue to come through their contact with the enemy fairly unscathed. It's also an uncensored look at the war from the point of view of Evan Wright, the Rolling Stone reporter embedded with First Recon who wrote a book about his experiences (with the same title as the show, Generation Kill: Devil Dogs, Iceman, Captain America and the New Face of American War).

To make war drama effective it needs to look and feel real. But Generation Kill takes that even a step further, sure they blow stuff up a la Saving Private Ryan and they talk the talk (everyone is "Oscar Mike" and all kinds of other sweet-ass sayings you get into your head the minute they're uttered on screen), but the actors are so committed to the roles that it's almost as if you're watching a documentary. So much of the current culture around creating art of the Iraq conflict fails for many of the same reasons: it's too austere, it's too bloated, or it's just plain bad. None of these problems plague Generation Kill. All of these problems plague Kimberly Peirce's abysmal Stop-Loss, which we watched this weekend.

Ryan Phillippe plays SSgt Brandon King, at a loss to protect his unit from an ambush, who arrives back in the US thinking he's about to get out a hero (with a Purple Heart for his troubles) when he discovers he's been "stop-lossed" and will need to report back to base to be sent over for yet another tour in Iraq. Finally sensing the futility of his position and of the war itself, he goes AWOL and is on the run for most of the film. Only in BK's world "on the run" means taking off with your best friend's girlfriend (played with a strange swagger by Abbie Cornish), hiding out in lame hotels, getting into fights, visiting A WAR HOSPITAL, attending the ARMY FUNERAL of a member of his unit and never get caught. And (SPOILERS AHEAD) after all of that, after watching one guy basically kill himself, after visiting the parents of another member of his squad that died on that fateful day, he decides to just go back anyway. What the fark? At least give Canada a chance buddy, it's not so bad up here and it'll take Stephen Harper at least a couple of years to extradite you. Yawn.

The whole film is preposterous. Nothing makes any sense, it's bloated, and while the performances aren't terrible, the dialogue is cringe-worthy enough to make you wonder why anyone agreed to make this film in the first place. In sharp contrast, the men in Generation Kill walk, talk, and act like soldiers. They're Recon Marines, as Brad "Iceman" Colbert (Alexander Skarsgård) says, they've had air training, dive training, survival training and they're being wasted on ridiculously silly missions in Iraq, to which someone responds, 'it's sure not Afghanistan,' and they all cheers to the memory of the conflict apparently fought in a way they can respect.

And it's not like Phillippe is a terrible actor, just the opposite, I think. He was wonderful in the under-appreciated gem, Breach, which was one of my favourite films of last year. But in this case, the material is so beneath him. In Generation Kill, the material is so good the men absolutely rise to the occasion, but Skarsgård and James Ransone are so good it's not even apparent they're acting, which you're always aware of when Phillippe and his co-star, Channing Tatum, are on screen. Even if war films aren't your thing, I'd give Generation Kill a try, if only because now that So You Think You Can Dance is over (woot! woot! Joshua woot!) there's really nothing else to watch and not much is happening over at Mad Men just yet. It always comes back to what I'm consistently saying about books -- if the writing is good, then the content is kind of irrelevant, the story will hold up regardless.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Harvest

I wish I could explain my melancholy mood these days. But there's absolutely nothing wrong with me, physically or mentally. If I had to wager a guess, I think it's because I miss the week or two that we usually spend up at the cottage full stop. The racing back and forth from weekend to weekday splits you in half, and it's not as if I don't appreciate the gift my grandparents gave me by hanging on to the cottage after all they went through, it's more that I feel out of myself when I don't spend enough time there.

You can never escape your childhood, I suppose. It lingers there in the back of your mind like a smoky room where cigarettes are now banned, hollowed out and aching in ways that make you wonder. There's also so very much going on right now: work, freelance, Classic Starts, reading challenges, writing, and it's all got to fit into one 24-hour day. The traffic jam of the modern everyday existence.

But behold, a little bit of a miracle in the backyard -- beans! Five delicious, crunchy, yummy yellow bush beans. We were out in the back where my RRHB was showing me our soon-to-be new front door (fabulous!) that he got today (to be installed tomorrow) and he said something about the beans needing stakes, that he didn't think they were growing well enough, and then he said, "Oh look, you've got beans!" Indeed, we did. We each ate one out in the garden and they were delicious. I pulled three more off, came upstairs, took their portraits, washed them off, and crunched them right before dinner. They made my day. I've been surviving on our cucumbers for snacks and now I'm glad I can add beans to the mix. But tell me, can I eat the purple ones too?

Sunday, August 10, 2008

#48 - Runaway

When you finish reading an Alice Munro book of short stories, you honestly feel as if you've accomplished something. You feel as though you've put yourself in a long line of people that will be reading Alice Munro short stories from now until hundreds of years from now. They may be reading them in a slightly different world, one that's a little more polluted and with many more people, but they'll be reading the stories none the less. Why? Because there's no way to deny that they're great art -- wonderful glimpses into the lives of extraordinarily ordinary women who make mistakes -- and they're simply marvelous.

Runaway was in the very first package of books I ordered when I first started my job at Random House. The book, in its first hard cover edition, sat on my shelf for weeks, then months, then years. It summered up at the cottage. It wintered there as well. Until I finally committed it to the reading pile as a part of the latest Canadian Book Challenge (Runaway represents #2 in my For the Ladies Challenge) and actually managed to finish it.

Comprised of eight short stories, three of which are linked, the collection has a consistent theme: each of the female protagonists run away in some form or another. Perhaps it's in how they dress or how they act, in how they think or in a physical event that motivates them to make a change in their lives, but its escapism in its different forms. The three linked stories follow the life of Juliet, from when she's a young woman still studying who takes a train trip and meets a man, until she's an older woman, who lives three distinct lives in each of the stories. All three are ridiculously effective and utterly engrossing as Juliet's life takes a marked and unexpected turn that contains such sharp edges as only Munro can write them. But I think my favourite story among the eight would just have to be the penultimate one, "Tricks," for its climax actually made me pull the book to my chest and hug it tight, feeling every inch of the words as if they were a part of my own life, a pain I felt instead of the protagonist, Robin.

The towns are small, but nameless (for the most part), and the setting seems secondary to the inner life of each of the women. They are rich, rich, rich pieces of literature, so perfect in every way that I don't have a single constructive thing to say. For some reason, I always leave Munro on my shelves, I collect her books like they're pieces of china, bits and bobs to be admired in a long line of Can Lit adorning my bookshelves. And every time I actually pull one of the books off the shelf and spend some time with it, I chastise myself for never spending more time with them. They're not to be admired. They're to be enveloped and digested, and then put back on the shelf to age with you, for Runaway is a book never to be given away or loaned to a friend, it's just that good. Oh, sure, I'll recommend it, and then direct you all over to Amazon to get your own copy.

PHOTO IN CONTEXT: The first few lines of my favourite story, up close and personal.
READING CHALLENGES: As above, #2 in my Canadian Book Challenge for this year.
WHAT'S UP NEXT: Finishing Wally Lamb's mammoth (and ridiculously engrossing) novel on my Sony Reader for work.

Saturday, August 02, 2008

The City On A Long Weekend

We're in the city for the long weekend and it's a very strange experience. Of course, the weather's perfect, absolutely gorgeous and bright. The lake would have been just glorious. In the end, it's probably for the best. Our tomatoes have the starting of what looks like blight, so I've got to deal with that today. There's a lavender pot that I haven't replanted yet that's so wilted I'm fearing for its life, and I need to weed like crazy.

I've been searching online for how to deal with my poor, sick plants. It seems that weather might be the cause, that or bad seeds, or just too many things planted in the garden (that's definitely my fault [although the tomato plants have loads of room]). Next year we'll need to make sure we put the tomatoes in a different place. Although right now it looks like only one or two plants are affected, and so I might just sacrifice those for the health of the rest. I'm afraid the tomatoes won't be great this year, but we've been so lucky with the quality of the zucchini and cucumbers, and the rest of the garden is growing so beautifully, that I'm not too worried. It's all good learning for next year, right?

What'll also be good about staying in the city is getting a long, laundry list of things done around the house: cleaning up the outside, clearing away some of the junk from the garage, tidying up, sweeping, all the stuff we never seem to have time to do. Add to that my 'work,': the next Classic Starts title, a freelance copy assignment, some leftover editing, the new story, and if I can cloister myself in my office for most of Monday, I should get a great start on all of it.

I'm also so behind in terms of my reading. Usually the summer is when I catch up, long days spent by the lake deep into some giant tome. But instead, I've been gardening up a storm, visiting, playing Scrabble, talking with my family, spending time with my nephew, and I feel a little out of sorts. I'm convinced it's because I can't actually concentrate on any book with any kind of depth. So, I forced myself out of my rut this morning and finished two stories by Alice Munro, and hopefully I'll finish Runaway by the end of the weekend. That'll put me back on track. Right?